Ten clichés of classical music journalism that I’d gladly never read again…
1) The sky is falling
Take an isolated incident or a few numbers out of context, and use them to construct a picture of an art-form in decline: Audiences are getting older. People don’t go to concert halls any more. CD stores are going out of business. Major labels are laying off staff.
The world is changing, and there are upsides and downsides. There’s good money to be made scaring the pants off your readers, but the truth is that people live longer, concert halls are excessively lavish and inflexible spaces, CD stores are being replaced by much better online retailers and major labels don’t need so many staff now that they’ve recorded almost everything. Tell one side of the story, only look at the bad stuff, and you’re distorting the facts, using innuendo to suggest an unlikely outcome.
Why is it that almost all stories about the future of classical music betray spectacular ignorance of the status quo?
All too often, we confuse “niche” with “endangered” when in truth the top end of any market is usually quite unpopular. Mercedes Benz has a 3% share of the US car market. They aren’t worried about extinction. Why should we be scared?
The cheerleader of the Chicken Littles is Norman Lebrecht, who this week saw no irony in reporting Lang Lang’s $3m deal with Sony alongside a story about how record sales are abysmally low. Either one of these stories isn’t true, or somebody at Sony is retarded. Among his countless contributions to the genre, this one is a classic, providing a broad survey of one-sided negativity and weaseling its way out of a definite prediction so that he can live to cry “Wolf!” another day.
2) Dumb technology
It’s only natural that we should be desperately searching for any innovation that might save us from all this imaginary doom. There’s also something strangely attractive about the idea of old music and new technology coming together. Enter the mad scientists, with their crazy inventions that promise to end the precipitous decline. Program notes on your PDA! Twitter from the Podium!
The trouble is, they’re always stupid ideas, invariably funded and publicized by an organization desperate to appear innovative. They won’t work because they’re pointlessly complicated gimmicks that distract from the real task ahead of us: to be better at our jobs, to put on more compelling performances, to challenge and engage our audience, to avoid the tedium of snobbery.
It’s much easier to write a story about a gadget than it is to explain why a concert was boring, but if you’re a music critic, it’s your job to explain why a concert was boring. If you can’t do that, you might consider becoming a technology correspondent, where it will be your job to explain why an invention was useless.
3) Anything for accessibility
It’s generally agreed that accessibility is a good thing, and it is a positive step to remove barriers to participation. Occasionally, the classical music was a barrier to participation, and that gets thrown out too. Katherine Jenkins thinks that recording pop songs will somehow make people like opera? You just write that down without questioning it? Mylene Klass is going to bring people to classical music through the medium of Linkin Park? There’s more to this than taking dictation.
Even if you’re not a specialist arts writer, you ought to have the sense to see that a bad pop story is being pitched as a good classical music story. Of course, if you are a classical specialist, the tendency will be to completely overreact instead, which brings us to…
4) Ew! Marketing!
When the baby has been thrown out with the bath water, why stop at saying “this is all jolly good fun, but it isn’t really classical music?”
This is a prime opportunity to get all ranty without offering any useful commentary. People will either already agree with you or they won’t care, but hey, why not look like an overly defensive, insecure music snob? A great example here is Rupert Christiansen’s rant about Popstar to Operastar (or Andrew Johnson’s), best served with Rolando Villazon’s entertaining rebuttal.
The habit of sneering at marketing is a destructive force in classical music. Do something that both sounds good and looks cool, and critics talk about presentation instead of substance. Artists reject innovative marketing because they’re afraid of losing credibility. Creative rot sets in. We all lose.
It’s possible to write entertainingly about a crossover project without talking about how much it upsets you, as Jasper Rees expertly demonstrates.
4) Adjectives that don’t mean anything
Classical music is as easy to understand as a starry night: you don’t need to be an astrophysicist to see that the milky way is beautiful.
In an age when performances increasingly converge on the middleground of consensus, I can understand that it’s tough to say something interesting about the 300th recording of Brahms 2. If you work at a magazine that mostly just carries reviews of new recordings alongside adverts for new recordings, I can see an incentive to pretend that there are really significant differences between them, but if you cover live music for a newspaper, I just don’t see the excuse.
Why, then, do reviewers insist on writing stuff that doesn’t say anything useful? Nico Muhly and John Adams have already written eloquently on this subject, so I’ll just add that it seems logically inconsistent for a reviewer to bullshit their readers. If you think you know better than us, then surely it’s ok to admit that you didn’t get it: nobody else will have got it either. If you don’t think you know better than us, what makes you think you’ll get away with bullshitting us? Is it that you don’t care? Is it only your editor that you’re trying to fool?
5) The audiophile myth
There are two groups of people that buy cough medicine: people who have a cough, and people who want to make crystal meth. There are people who buy classical records because they like the music, and there are people who buy them because they’re a great way to showcase their stereo systems. The two groups are mostly separate. If you don’t believe me, listen to a random selection of classical SACDs. People aren’t buying these records for the playing. I’m not saying that there’s no crossover between the two markets, but if you’re serious about making good medicine, you’d be crazy to aim a product at meth dealers with sore throats.
If you’re going to write that people won’t download classical music until it is available in lossless formats, you’d better have some evidence for that claim. Perhaps one of the many stores offering lossless downloads of classical music has reported meaningful sales? No? Not a single one of them? Did you stop to ask why not? Would you like some meth with that?
6) Money will come from product innovation
What do minidisc, SACD, memory sticks, subscription, hi-res downloads and physical retail have in common? They failed to capture the mainstream market. People buy CDs online, and they download compressed audio. That’s how people buy music now. Audio exists independently of the media on which it is stored. Obsessing about formats isn’t going to change a market saturated with hi-fidelity recordings. Nobody is going to invent something that makes it ok to make the same mediocre record over and over again. Companies that make better records will succeed. Companies that don’t will fail. Customers will decide how they want to buy their music.
7) Aging audience
The truth is that nobody’s really trying to get young people to go to concerts. Young people buy tickets and expect to be entertained. Old people don’t just buy tickets, they give you money. Arts organizations are getting more sophisticated in the ways in which they pander to their most lucrative demographic: the elderly. That’s how Americans have built 38 new concert halls in the last ten years. We’re trying to hold up the sky, one $100m building project at a time.
8) Myths and Legends
There are three stages of life for the classical musician: you start off as an overhyped technically adept wünderkind with little substance. That lasts for about two albums. Then you’re struggling to be taken seriously as a mature artist for about 40 years, until one day you wake up in the morning and you’re a legendary authority that can’t play like they used to and it’s time to retire while we mine your catalog. Somewhere between the myth and legend are a group of people who do a lot of practice and work incredibly hard to play music very beautifully.
9) Classical music has magical powers
On a slow news day, classical music will prevent loitering, treat epilepsy, punish unruly kids, lower blood pressure, help premature babies grow, make you smarter (but not as smart if you’d listened to Blur).
Why are you wasting time on this crap? We need to know if classical music cures cancer.
10) Classical musicians are normal people really
When we’re not in a panic about about being marginalized, we’re trying too hard to show everybody that we’re normal. The stories only make sense if you accept the the unspoken premise that everybody thinks we’re freaks. Why else would it be newsworthy that Joshua Bell went busking?
This just in: Unconfirmed reports suggest that James Levine is not a pedophile.
See what I did there? Right. Go find some proper news, and report it.